LA County Leaders Consider Alternatives To Jail For Sick, Vulnerable Inmates

Officers from the L.A. County Sheriff's Department guard an intersection outside the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in Los Angeles on Feb. 8, 2013. (Christopher Okula/KPCC)

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is set to vote Tuesday on a set of ambitious strategies for reducing the number of inmates in the county's jail system who suffer from mental illness, homelessness and other vulnerabilities.

The plan, if passed, will likely set the agenda for criminal justice reform approved by voters last week as part of Measure R.

Both Measure R and the set of strategies before the Board of Supervisors seek to decrease the jail population and provide community-based treatment for vulnerable inmates, especially people with mental illness. Measure R also gives subpoena power to the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission.

ALTERNATIVES TO JAIL

Currently, L.A. County operates the largest jail system in the nation. On any given day, more than 17,000 people are locked up, and more than 30% of them are severely mentally ill.

Under Measure R, the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission must present a plan and a feasibility study for decreasing the jail population and reinvesting the savings from doing so into prevention and mental health treatment.

But the Board of Supervisors got a jump on that process a year ago, when it formed the Alternatives to Incarceration Work Group and tasked it with coming up with a similar plan. That working group, which is made up of community advocates, lawyers and academics, is presenting its report to the Board of Supervisors this week. It includes more than 100 recommendations to reduce the jail population, grouped into five strategies:

    1. Expand and scale community-based treatment and services (includes family reunification services, recovery housing and appropriate mental health conservatorships).
    2. Respond to mental health problems, substance use disorders and homelessness with behavioral health care rather than law enforcement (includes training 911 operators on mental health screenings and significantly increasing the number of Psychiatric Mobile Response Teams).
    3. Boost pre-trial release and diversion programs.
    4. Provide effective treatment instead of jail time (includes early identification of people who are eligible for diversion and working toward equal access to treatment).
    5. Work to eliminate racial disparities and engage people impacted by the plan (includes ensuring equitable access to services and expanding job opportunities for people with mental health disorders).

Brian Williams, executive director of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, said the jail reform plan his group is required to develop under Measure R would likely follow the alternatives to incarceration report.

"If we can come up with a good product with using the [Alternatives to Incarceration] report and adding to it, that's where we will end up," Williams said.

WHAT WILL IT COST?

The report lays out some options for funding the strategies but notes that "additional resources are needed."

Dr. Bob Ross, who chairs the Alternatives to Incarceration Work Group, said he believes the reforms would ultimately be less expensive than maintaining the status quo.

"For taxpayers of this community, it is cheaper to treat someone in a facility than a jail," he said.

SO WHAT'S NEXT?

The Alternatives to Incarceration report will be presented to the Board of Supervisors at its Tuesday meeting. The board will then vote on a motion to adopt the final report and to establish a special team inside the county CEO's office to implement the recommendations.

The motion also instructs the county CEO to report back to the board with a preliminary analysis of the recommendations within 90 days.

Read the full report: